Monday, September 22, 2014

Channeling Zhong Kui (the Demon Queller)

One of my favorite memories of my time in Taipei was a museum exhibit devoted to a character named Zhong Kui - "the demon queller."

The National Palace Museum is the repository of an enormous treasure trove of art objects transported to Taiwan c. 1949, when the KMT government lost control of the mainland to the Chinese Communist Party. Whatever you think about the morality of that development -- whether you view it as "looting" or "preservation" -- the fact is that it provided hours and hours of exquisite enjoyment for a student living in Taipei in 1979.

I can still close my eyes and remember being inside the Palace Museum - cases containing Song masterpiece after Song masterpiece, in quite, softly-lit, elegantly-outfitted, vaguely aromatic (sandalwood?) galleries. Each of the paintings contained a miniature world, inviting you to enter deeper and deeper in, so that it seemed you would never have the time to explore all of the worlds they offered.  In addition to paintings, there were galleries for all the different types of Chinese artwork - porcelain, bronzes, carvings, etc.

Zhong Kui painted by the Shun Zhi Emperor (detail)
Zhong Kui as a portal

The Zhong Kui exhibit at the Palace Museum had dozens of paintings and other objects, all related to the character Zhong Kui.

I particularly like the way Zhong Kui's eyes were depicted. They were almost always shown enlarged, as if Zhong Kui were in some sort of trance or manic episode.

Sometimes, they seemed to be shown to be directed in 2 different directions, much like those of the comic actor Marty Feldman.

(Why did I find this maniac look so charming?)

I also particularly liked several of the paintings that combined the story of Zhong Kui with some of the other conventions of traditional Chinese painting; it made it seem like a particularly worthwhile invitation to enter into the painting and go on an exploration:

Zhong Kui by Huang Shen

And I was captivated by a long scroll which showed Zhong Kui together with his rather ghoulish minions - each of which as interesting as Zhong Kui himself:

Gong Kai, Zhong Kui Traveling (c. 1304)
Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
(Click to see large-size image.)

Here's a close-up:

Gong Kai, Zhong Kui Traveling
(Click to see large-size image.)

Variations on a theme

Most of all, I think I liked the way there could be so many different genres in which to depict a single character like Zhong Kui, while still remaining within the four walls of "Chinese" culture.

For instance, there's Zhong Kui as character in Peking opera:

Peking Opera: Zhong Kui Marry His Younger Sister Off

Zhong Kui in folk art decoration:

Zhong Kui: Chinese New Year Decoration (stamp)

and folk craft:

Zhong Kui depicted in Chinese-style paper cutting

Objets-d'art such as snuff bottles . . .

Nephrite Jade Zhong Kui snuff bottle

And on and on . . . .

Not surprisingly, as with much else in Chinese culture, the Zhong Kui story has passed into Japanese culture as an object of interest, and he is known there as Shoki. Hence we see a whole panoply of Japanese versions of Shoki the demon queller . . . .

I'm particularly fascinated by the Japanese-style tattoos of Zhong Kui:

Full-back Shoki tattoo

. . . and also Shoki netsuke:

Shoki netsuke

Notably, it fell to a Japanese ukio-e (woodblock print) artist to create a depiction of the first great Chinese artist to paint Zhong Kui:

Totoya Hokkei, Wu Daozi Painting Zhong Kui
(Read the description on the Harvard Art Museums website.)
(Click to see large-size image.)

The Zhong Kui story, and Zhong Kui as metaphor

Of course, the most charming thing about Zhong Kui is his story. His characteristic outfit is the robe and special hat of the scholar, and that is because he only became the demon queller after first successfully passing the imperial examinations, only to be refused admission to the official ranks because the judges found him to be too ugly.  Infuriated and despondent, Zhong Kui took his own life by dashing his head against a wall. At the gates of Hell, the King of Hell recognized Zhong Kui's virtue and so put him to work quelling demons.

I suppose I found this especially appealing because, at the time, I and my fellow students were in a Chinese language program that involved 4 hours a day of class (2 hours 1-on-1 and 2 hours 1-on-2) that often left us feeling like we had been washed up at the gates of Hell. The notion of having one's virtue recognized -- by somebody -- was hard to ignore.

At the time, I, myself, probably paid inadequate attention to the centrality of ghosts and demons to Chinese folk religion. This was not the case with some of my fellow students, notably Buzzy Teiser, author of The Ghost Festival in Medieval China.

Years later, however, in the days when I traveled frequently to China and brought home picture books for my children depicting the adventures of Monkey battling all manner of demons, I began to take seriously the importance of demons and demon-quelling as a metaphor.  (And that includes here and now in our own culture.)

So . . . if perchance you happen to see me 
walking along . . . bearing a wild, bristling beard . . . 
and a dazed expression . . . fear not! 

I'm simply channeling Zhong Kui . . . !

Joe Scarry (photo courtesty Roger Beltrami)

More about Taipei c. 1979 . . . .

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